Style has always been driven by youth culture, and it’s always been defined by free expression. That might sound somewhat contradictory, as we don’t often view today’s youth as particularly driven, and we don’t really see free expression as something that can be defined. But honestly, that’s kind of the point. Style isn’t about working hard or fulfilling some quota. It’s about remaining effortless, it’s about being true to yourself, it’s about forming an aesthetic that makes a statement without really saying anything. It’s ethereal and it’s aloof and it’s something that absolutely everyone is dying to capture and recreate.
Which brings us to the ubiquitous and beautiful enamel pin. As a fashion item, pins are having a moment. They are absurdly, almost comically popular, the pure embodiment of street style, and arguably more important to fashion than the clothing they’re pinned to. Why? Because they’re an easy way for young artists to proliferate their work. They are to this generation what stickers were to the ’90s kids.
“[Enamel] pins are an example of how the internet has empowered us to take charge of our creativity and make the things we want to see in the world,” explained Eduardo Morales, the man behind the mega-popular Pinlord site and Instagram account. “No longer do we have to accept and conform with what a fashion brand thinks is cool.”
Made from cost-effective materials, enamel pins are cheap and quick to produce (especially for artists and creators savvy enough to order in large quantities). “Apart from giving people a fun accessory to pin on their jackets or backpacks, which is just plain fun, I think the deeper impact on fashion has come from the fact that enamel pins have made it accessible for anyone to start small fashion-related business for less than $200 bucks,” said Morales.
While not a new invention, the 1-2 punch of enamel pins and social media has offered artists and designers an exciting-if-not-tiny medium for their work. With a generally high rate of profit, enamel pins are also a smart source of income for any artist. But most importantly, pins offer the wearer a chance to add a touch of low-effort style to an ensemble. “Flair,” as they might say on Office Space. With an endless array of options, and a low barrier to entry (most enamel pins cost between $10 and $15), it’s no mystery why street style has embraced the enamel pin with open arms — and lapels.
When done well, an enamel pin is an affordable piece of art that you can wear everywhere you go. Very few items in fashion have that kind of versatility.
“Enamel pins are a popular medium for artists to showcase their work,” said Alex Dakoulas, the founder and owner of Strange Ways (a go-to pin purchasing sites). “Pins are an old form, but now they’ve really become little pieces of art. Social media allows artists to promote their own work— and inexpensive, accessible, and wearable items like pins are a perfect way to get their work out to the public. ”
Dakoulas nails it. Many artists supplement their income by making and selling enamel pins, and several have even found enamel pins to be much more lucrative than selling prints or original pieces. “One of the biggest problems that I find with creative entrepreneurs is that what they make is very expensive,” he explained. “…Pins totally play into the mantra of supporting artists, but also [are] lower priced items so our customers don’t have to spend $500 on an original painting.”
Social media is motor for these sales — Strange Ways started online before opening a brick and mortar store, using their online sales to seed their expansion. The shop was essentially born on Instagram, an extremely common story for successful pin artists.
“Instagram is the fuel that keeps the pingame running,” Morales said. “In the early days, there were only a handful of people making pins and selling them online. When they started putting their work on Instagram, the accessibility of the platform allowed for a much bigger audience to discover their work and a lot more people started buying and selling pins.”
It makes sense, because enamel pins have essentially become the de facto avatar of youth fashion, thriving outside of the mainstream fashion machine.
“I love the virtual community of pin collectors going strong on Instagram,” said Miranda Dressler, a former character designer at Cartoon Network, current lead graphic designer at Paul Frank, and an enamel pin and patch designer and seller. “How else would people from the opposite sides of the country find and trade badass pins without #pingamestrong? There are new pins and talented new designers showing up all the time and the amount of makers and collectors is growing fast.” As Dressler sees it, “…the most successful enamel pins are like memes you can wear.”
Phrased that way it seems obvious: Memes you can wear is an insanely good idea. In fact, it’s one of those ideas that’s so good that it’s shocking that no one thought of it and capitalized on it before a bunch of young people got together on Instagram and started doing it themselves.
“I’ve seen 16 year olds release insanely well-designed pins that sell a lot more than mine usually do, even though I’m considered an experienced professional,” said Morales. “That makes me happy!”
Not every pin seller is as gregarious as Eduardo Morales. There’s another trend that lurks beneath pin culture, and it’s thievery. “We had it happen specifically with one product that we carry,” explained Dakoulas. “Our shop not only works to produce our own work, so we collaborate with local designers. We produced [a patch] and it eventually got ripped off by, I’m assuming, a manufacturer [overseas]. And the problem with big box stores is that they don’t usually work with designers, they definitely don’t buy from artists and they definitely don’t use their in-house artists. They’re just looking through a book. So this patch that we specifically made, it somehow ended up in the book, and it’s everywhere now. It’s just being ripped off.”
Stealing within the industry is troubling because it undermines the producers’ authenticity — arguably the most marketable aspect of these unique pins and patches. Authenticity is something that big box stores can never replicate, because it’s destroyed in the process of mass production.
“Some people think of pins as a fashion accessory, but I think they’re more like a fun form of pop-art: something that brings you joy and starts conversations,” said Dressler. “Some of my favorite enamel pins aren’t necessarily ‘pop culture’ related – even if there’s not a reference to ‘get.’ The right pin on your jacket or backpack tells the world a little bit about who you are.”
“I’m also very much am invested in this idea that what we choose to wear or put in our homes is a representation of who we are,” echoed Dakoulas. “It’s a large part of what Strange Ways is about.”
So enamel pins are DIY fashion at its finest. They’re punk rock, they’re underground, they’re hip. But, perhaps most importantly, their application is impossible to emulate. Their look, their creation, and how they’re worn are all decided by an economy of style. The style that comes from pins is not only dependant on which pins you wear, but also how you wear them.
“I think the customizable aspect is very important,” said Dakoulas. “With pins specifically, you can remove them, you can take them from one thing to another, you can put them on a hat one day and then put them onto your bag and onto your coat…I think people don’t want to be told what to wear anymore. We’re savvy enough to know that. We have all these resources, we have magazines, we have style blogs. We can get inspired by people, and we can do it ourselves.” Young people have cut out the middleman, essentially. They’ve fully streamlined the process of creating and consuming fashion, and it’s absolutely amazing.
And, economically, the production of pins has also made young people able to survive as artists, as well as support themselves.
“Your success depends on how well you’re able to execute, not how much money you have,” said Morales. “That gives me hope about the future! If you’re passionate about working for yourself and ready to put in the hours and hard work it takes to learn how to build a conscious and sustainable business, you will eventually do it.”